“It has been four months since the mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell's possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland's dying body through the rift – back into Black London. Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games – an extravagant international competition of magic meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries – a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port. And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.”
There was a point in the narrative of this book that I realized nothing was actually happening. Unlike A Darker Shade of Magic, this second volume screams “this is the middle book in a trilogy, so everything that does happen is essentially set-up for a third book.” And that’s bad for any longtime reader of fantasy novels, because then you start noticing where author V. E. Schwab (I’ll talk about this later) is lifting other ideas from better books. The first one had a sort of magical stone from Black London, which played out like another version of the One Ring. In A Gathering of Shadows, we get variations on the magic used in the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, with added doses of the Force when Delilah Bard starts training under the tutelage of pirate (with a secret) Emery Alucard.
I understand a lot of this is necessary to move the plot forward, but it also became clear that Schwab was using this as a foreshadowing for a third volume. Of course, some of this training comes in handy during the only large set piece of the book, the Element Games, but that only takes up the last 150 or so pages of this 509 page book. Everything up to this just seems like filler, including, oddly, the rise of Holland, the other Antari who was under the thrall of the now dead Dane twins. In Black London, the master magician does not encounter death, but source (I guess) of evil that destroyed this world. And like any true devil, it offers Holland a choice –die or let It have a life outside this dead realm. And, of course, Holland chooses to return to White London with a monkey on his back.
The problem here is that we only get sporadic glimpses into this world, because again, you sense this is all set-ups for the next volume.
Of the characters, Delilah remains the better drawn. She still is the snarky fun thief I liked about in the first book. Schwab likes her a lot as well, so we get a more three-dimensional individual, more growth from her. Alucard is close to her match, a fancy pirate with reputation who (at times) borders on becoming Obi Wan Kenobi. Still, it’s nice to see a bisexual character in fantasy series. Rhy is another character that Schwab clearly enjoys writing, and I always looked forward to when he was on the page (and thanks to a picture Schawb posted on her Twitter page, I now see that guy every time Rhy is presented). But that leaves the problematic Kell, an individual that continues to never learn from his mistakes. Plus he seems to have a bigger ego than the main villain, which would be cool if the author eventually sets him up as the Big Bad, but I clearly don’t see that happening. Yes, Kell is charming, he clearly loves his brother, Delilah, and even his adopted parents, but he’s also petulant, quick to think his ideas, his choices, are always better than anyone else’s, and that becomes boring after a while.
So, I liked it but it was slow, with a tedious pacing that made me take longer to finish book than others. It got interesting towards the end –like the last 200 pages- and that’s a huge problem for a writer known for her Young Adult titles than this fantasy series written for adults. If you want to capture an audience beyond teenage females who devoured the Hunger Games books, you need to create a world that adults want to read about. Plus if you’re going to take 509 pages to your story, don’t make the first three hundred an effort to get through.
Which brings me to the writers name; she wrote her Young Adult titles under her real name of Victoria Schwab, but for Vicious (her debut in “adult” fiction), she published under V.E. Schwab, which she is continuing here. I’m curious at this publishing strategy. Is she pulling a D.C. Fontana here? Is her publisher afraid that the only way to attract male readers (and break into the adult male-dominated fantasy field) is publish a book using her initials instead of her full name? Yes, J.K. Rowling used a pseudonym when she started writing adult crime fiction, but I think that was mostly due to her well known life as the writer of the Harry Potter novels. And while crime fiction –and the sort of hardcore stuff Rowling wanted to write- can be considered another male-dominated genre, had she published under her own name instead of Robert Galbraith, she still would’ve been successful. Because they’re well written, interesting books.
Of course, maybe this is the problem in publishing. I sense there is an assumption that if a writer does not stick to one genre, they’re forced to either continue doing what they’re known for or must publish books under pen names. Or use initials instead of your full name.
The good part is I have about another 10 months before volume three comes out, so maybe time and tide will allow me to forget the problems with this book and hope that the concluding tale matches the excitement and fun of the first book.